Surrendering on the Battlefield: How did soldiers negotiate their survival? 

Surrendering on the battlefield was considered one of the most dangerous acts on the battlefield of the First World War. Dropping your weapons and raising your arms, a surrendering soldier was at the complete mercy of his captor. In what Canadian historian Tim Cook describes as the “politics of surrender,” [1] surrendering soldiers were left to negotiate their survival with their enemy. How did they choose to do so, and how successful were they? 

Image: [Passchendaele. German Prisoners helping wounded Canadian], A.S. English Fonds, Collections CCGW/CCGG, 2016.3.1.1-181.

When the armistice was signed on November 11th, 1918, it is estimated that the Canadian Corps had captured at least 42,000 German soldiers throughout the war. Prisoners of war served a valuable purpose throughout the war. Beyond providing tangible proof of battlefield success, POWs provided intelligence on the enemy, became a much-needed source of labour behind the lines, and helped portray a picture of civilized warfare. [2] Despite these figures and advantages, however, Canadian soldiers acquired a reputation on the battlefield for taking on very few prisoners. When Fred Hamilton was captured by German soldiers during the Hundred Days Offensive, he was beaten and threatened by a German colonel who argued “I don’t care for the English, Scotch, French, Australians, or Belgians, but damn you Canadians, you take no prisoners and you kill our wounded.”[3]

The initial first contact between a soldier surrendering and their captor was never predictable. Possibly wounded, perhaps shell-shocked, speaking a different language, or unable to raise their hands, a soldier might be unable to successfully negotiate the ‘politics of surrender.’ Failure to do so, however, typically resulted in immediate execution on the battlefield. Once a soldier survived their first contact, their journey was still not over and their life still not guaranteed. Captured German soldiers were taken to the cages behind the lines, and then subsequently to prisoner of war camps in France or England.

The trip to the rear cages was no easy feat either. Amidst the terror and confusion of battle, a prisoner’s life was not always guaranteed. As evidenced by the many photographs of German soldiers carrying out Canadians, such as the one pictured above, prisoners were usually eager to show their willingness to help and would often scramble to assist wounded Canadians in order to prove their use and ensure their safety. Prisoners could be sent to the rear cages alone or escorted, though the latter was typically preferred. While captured soldiers were unarmed, it was not difficult for a prisoner to find grenades and rifles on the battlefield, thus becoming a difficult and dangerous task for a soldier to escort prisoners back. As such, it was often encouraged by many officers to ‘take no prisoners.’

References

[1] Tim Cook, “The Politics of Surrender: Canadian Soldiers and the Killing of Prisoners in the Great War,” The Journal of Military History 70, 3 (July, 2006).

[2] Ibid, 641.

[3] Desmond Morton, When your number’s up: the Canadian soldier in the First World War (Toronto: Random House of Canada, 1993), 209.

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